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Updated: May 16, 2022

What It Takes to Pay Off Student Loan Debt Successfully Without Stress

Learn from people who have paid of a large amount of student loan debt successfully. Find out the steps they took to take control of their monthly payments.

Tension. Anxiety. Depression. Insomnia. Irritability. Restlessness.

What do all of these things have in common? Studies show that they’re some of the major symptoms reported by people struggling to pay their student loan debt.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise since facing tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in student loans are a major financial burden that can pose a big impact to anyone’s mental, emotional or physical health.

You shouldn’t feel pressured to overcome any of these issues overnight.

But you can cope and work through them more quickly -- and maybe even pay off your loans more expediently -- by hearing about some other people who paid theirs off successfully.

A great success story against all odds can be a big motivator, so here are a few we found to help you along your student loan journey.

Find out what you can learn from them, and read on for some helpful tips.

How van will travel!

Ken Ilgunas had recently graduated with a liberal arts degree in history and English, $32,000 in student loans, but no job prospects on the horizon.

So, with the horizon ahead, Ilgunas pulled up stakes and moved to Alaska, first working as a van tour guide, and afterward, whatever employment the icy frontier would offer up, like being a canoe guide in Canada for voyagers (think of cosplayers who dress up as fur trappers and traders).

Afterward, Ilgunas lived in a van at Duke University, braving the bitter cold and brutal summers with just the bare necessities, for two and half years.

It may have been hard to tough it out for that long, but it was enough time to be frugal, live minimally, and use the savings to pay off his entire student loan debt.

What lesson should you take away from Ken's story? 

Just because debt is a responsibility, experiencing life doesn’t have to be put on hold.

Avoiding temptation

A dollar figure of $113,019 sounds like it would take forever to pay off, but Jessica Elberfeld paid it off in only seven years after graduating from Belmont University.

Her strategy?

Simply avoiding the temptations to spend money on the material things most peers her age were busy buying.

Elberfeld attributes her debt success story to sharing an affordable house with two roommates, and driving the same car she’d had since high school, considerably cutting down her rent and transportation costs.

But Elberfeld didn’t stop there and refrained from other luxuries that might be expected a woman in her age group to buy, such as a new house, furnishings, clothes, accessories, shoes, and plenty of money spent on socializing, eating and drinking out.

Combined with working two jobs and refinancing/consolidating her loans, Elberfeld made all the right moves, paid off her debt, and still had money left over to enjoy life.

What lesson should you take away from Jessica's story? 

Money can’t buy happiness, living frugally and simply can. (And it can help pay down debt.)

Breaking even

Steven Donovan earned the nickname “Even Steven” for good reason; through a combination of financial awareness, planning, and action, Donovan pared down more than $100,000 in student debt in just five short years.

Donovan originally tried to keep up with the Joneses by driving a luxury car and living a successful image severely undercut by major debt -- not a good combo.

Opting for a cheaper mode of transportation freed up a lot of money to put towards his debt, but he did more by strategy.

First, he boosted his income by buying rental property and using earnings as a landlord to put toward debt.

Then, he also took on some side work and budgeting that opened up more dollars where they hadn’t been before.

By breaking even -- and breaking free -- from debt, Donovan opened up a world of financial possibilities not available before.

What lesson should you take away from Steven's story? 

Sometimes, it’s not just one method, but several methods all at play, that can create the best debt payoff plan.

How to Create Your Own Success Story

Every good student debt payoff success story is a success story for a reason.

It’s about someone who made a goal, found a creative way to achieve that goal, and stuck with it.

With that, there are no hard and fast rules to creating your own success story, and you don’t have to pay off your loans in record time, either.

Sometimes it’s about knowing the right way to earn extra income. Sometimes it’s knowing how to strategize your loan payments.

And sometimes, it’s knowing when not to pay your loans that can provide the most insight.

1. Make your own game plan

You might have student loan debt in common with millions of other borrowers, but only yours is unique to yourself.

Not the loan balance, interest rates, and payment terms, but your own personal and financial situation in relation to them.

Don’t worry about beating someone else or paying off your loans faster.


It’s not a race.

Making comparisons with others will only create more of that tension and anxiety you don’t need.

Map out your own budget, your own repayment plan, and your own goals that realistically work for you.

2. Supplement your income

Working a side hustle or taking a part-time job are just two ways to garner extra cash for a student debt fund.

Use those earnings exclusively for contributing to your monthly payments. It’s fine if the income is inconsistent, or if the job is seasonal and you have no side earnings for a bit.

Every bit counts.

Don’t forget it’s not just extra side gigs where you can earn money, either; you may auction unwanted items on eBay, or if you’re the crafty type, sell your work on sites like Etsy.

3. Pay some, save some

If you can find a way to save on interest rates (keep reading for how you can do that!), then it might make sense to put your money elsewhere.

You can instruct your lender to direct part or all of your payments towards your interest rate and not your principal because the principal will always be the same amount, but your interest will keep rising if left unpaid.

Paying off your loans super fast could mean missing the opportunity to get a better return on investment elsewhere.

That way:

Even if the money you intended to dump into your loans may go towards a stock or bond option, the higher return may offset the interest your loans might accrue.

Consider Consolidation or Refinancing

Paying your loans is set in stone, but the rules don’t have to be. That’s why we have refinancing and consolidation options.

Refinancing is a deal with the existing lender or a new lender to adjust the interest rates, payment terms and conditions to something that’s more manageable and affordable for you.

Lowering your rate and extending your term can also lower your monthly payment, save you money and help you pay off those loans faster.

Consolidating is combining several loans into one large loan that’s then used to pay off each smaller loan.

Consolidation also offers revised interest rates and terms more amenable to work with and is best for people with too many loans to keep up with. Here, you have one loan to concentrate your efforts on.

Depending on your new loan, you may end up increasing the time it takes to repay your debt.

This may lower your monthly payment and give you more time to pay off the loan, but it also gives more time for interest to build, and that means you pay more money in the long run. 

Remember you can consolidate and refinance both your federal and your private loans.


If you choose to consolidate your federal and private loans together and then refinance to get a better interest rate, you will lose out on eligibility for possible forgiveness programs.

Remember Your Alternatives

The Department of Education also offers some options that you’re legally allowed to apply for.

Student loan deferment delays any loan payments needed from you for up to three (3) years.

For Perkins Loans, Direct Subsidized or Direct Stafford Loans, your interest may be paid by the U.S. government during the principal payment delay period.

Forbearance is like a deferment, only it puts your payments on hold for up to one year.

You won’t owe any money during this time, but interest will continue to accrue.

Then there are income-based repayment plans offered by the Department of Education.

IBR calculates your owed monthly amount on your income, not your loan balance. IBR plans include Pay as you Earn (PAYE), Revised Pay as you Earn (REPAYE) and Income-Contingent Repayment (ICR).


Student loans are about the journey, not the destination. Your success story doesn’t happen only when you’ve paid off your loans.

The story’s already being told. There’s no need to put life on hold for your student loans, just like life doesn’t start once you’ve finished paying them off; it’s happening, right now.

All you need to do is find a way for your loans and the things you love to do to live harmoniously together.

It may involve making some sacrifices -- maybe not as radical as living in a van, mind you.

But look to trim expenses and cut back where you can, and commit to them, using the freed-up money to pay your loans.

Starting a game plan today, whether you’re on your first payment or three years into your loans, sets you in motion to tackle your student loans, and replace stress with pride, anxiety with relief, and sleeplessness with a night well rested over some loans well paid.